A successful travel photographer recently announced that he would willingly give his photos to Starbucks to use on Instagram for free, as long as they weren’t marketing a product. I was so shocked that I almost spat out my coffee.
Even more alarming was that none of his followers seemed to think that this was a strange thing to do. People didn't seem to understand how content marketing works, and surely photographers should know better than most.
To explain: Photographer Brendan van Son recently released this video explaining how he filed a copyright infringement notice with Instagram (for a simple explanation of how to do this, check out this article). A Greek travel company had taken one of his images and posted it to their Instagram account, adding a caption that meant it was clearly using Van Son's content to market its brand to its 198,000 followers. Understandably, van Son took action, filed a claim and the image was removed.
Van Son discussed his logic for filing copyright claims, explaining that many accounts get a pass if they credit him and as long as they’re not directly selling something in the caption:
I should talk about what commercial means on Instagram. What is that line? Where is that line? For me, that line is obviously commercial, directly commercial. It’s not just vaguely commercial; it has to be direct.
Then came the part that left me almost speechless. He continues: if Starbucks were to use an image on its Instagram to directly advertise one of their products, van Son would be filing a claim or sending an invoice. However, if Starbucks were to use one of his photos of someone sipping a beverage and used a caption that did little more than describe the scene and credit van Son — this would be fine. No copyright infringement claim, no invoice sent, no complaint as long as he got his credit. This is incredible.
Everything on Instagram Is an Advert
Putting aside the fact that Starbucks, in this hypothetical situation, is using the image without permission, if you think that just because it’s not directly selling a product then it’s not actually advertising it, then you need to learn how content marketing works. If Van Son had chosen a tiny, independent coffee shop that over the years had let him idle at one of their tables for hours at a time while spending very little money, I’d understand that he wouldn’t mind helping them out through the personal connection he has with the company. But Starbucks?
I scoured the comments for people sharing my alarm. Nothing. No-one batted an eyelid at the thought of giving images away for free to a billion-dollar, multinational corporation as long as that corporation doesn’t use the image to specifically advertise something. Surely, of all people, photographers should understand how Instagram functions.
Van Son differentiates between a post that is "directly commercial" — mentioning a specific product — and "vaguely commercial" — the photos and videos that show a product but are not specifically telling you to buy it. What this blithely ignores is that the stuff that is "vaguely commercial" is a massive industry and can be more effective in selling a product and publicizing a brand than the other, more traditional mode of marketing.
Curating Carefully Crafted Content to Create a Connection
Content marketing is the new advertising and can be seen to hold more power over the modern day consumer. In the days when media was little more than scheduled broadcasting, billboards, magazines and newspapers, things were different. Adverts were obvious, drawing eyeballs to allocated slots that were clearly separate from editorial content. But with the advent of sponsored content, product placements, brand partnerships, and social media, the line between advertorial and editorial has become increasingly blurred.
For companies, social media is huge. Billions of dollars are spent on Instagram content marketing and direct advertising, and the spending will increase year on year for the foreseeable future. This money is not spent solely on those posts featuring the word “sponsored” in small letters next to them. It’s spent on creating aspirational content, copywriting, consultants, media managers, coordinated campaigns, tie-ins, influencer endorsements, and so much more.
For companies, Instagram is more than just a shop window. Every hashtag, every full stop, and every pixel of every image and video is an advert. Companies used to spend endless money designing a logo and a color scheme; nowadays, alongside that, they spend it curating the perfect image of how they want their company to be perceived and the majority of this happens through social media. Branding is how a company creates a bond between its products and its customers, giving you that sense of trust or prestige when you use that product, prompting you to choose one brand over another.
And on social media, everything is branding. Everything — including the posts where a product is not even seen. Every company is crafting a relationship with its audience and every post is painstakingly selected to reflect and reinforce that brand’s values. If an image captures a certain vibe, it can be exploited.
Take this video from Starbucks explaining how it specifically supports veterans and military spouses. It’s an admirable policy for which I give the corporation a huge amount of respect. That said, is this advertising? Absolutely. If it’s on social media and shaping the way in which a brand is perceived — as a warm and cozy company that takes care of its employees — it’s part of a content marketing strategy. The use of Van Son’s image would be no different. And be assured: this is not to say that Starbucks’ intentions are completely cynical or that they should be singled out for an exploitative marketing ploy (see "woke washing"). This is just how capitalism functions.
Giving It for Free Is Working for Free
Whatever Van Son’s reasons, giving your images away to companies to use for social media is not that different from working for free. We frequently hear frustrations from those who see their fellow photographers and videographers giving away their time and expertise in exchange for exposure or a foot in the door. Letting a company use your image on their Instagram is no different, even if the caption isn’t selling something. You are advertising for them. You should get paid, and the fact that you’re willingly giving up your work for nothing undermines the efforts of everyone trying to earn a living from their creativity.
In this recent article, I explain that complaining about others working for free is pointless and that it’s just a symptom of how neoliberalism functions more broadly. Maybe I should be more resigned about photographers gleefully handing over their work for content marketing, but there is a fundamental difference: at least when you work for free, you're fully aware that you are being exploited because you put the hours in and your bank balance stays the same as it was before. If you happily let Starbucks use your imagery, it feels different: there's no investment of time, money or expertise on your part. An image that would otherwise sit and do nothing is now being seen with zero effort from you. My impression is that people simply don't understand how their images have value, and how their work can be used to craft a company's relationship with its customers.
Ideally, we need a better understanding of the role that commercial practices play in our everyday lives. Having Van Son tell his followers that direct advertising should be paid but content marketing can be free is reflective of how little we understand of how Instagram operates, and how opaque it is as an advertising platform. Just as we need to educate ourselves about giving our time and services away for nothing, we need to become more aware of what value our images have in a world dominated by content marketing.
I'd be grateful for your thoughts: have you given away your work because a company wanted to use it on their Instagram? Please leave a comment below.
Lead image is a composite using a photo by Anderson Miranda.